Yesterday in Somerset County, New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie proposed an amendment to his state’s constitution that, if enacted in a referendum next year, will apportion state aid to local school districts on a per pupil basis.
What would this mean when fully phased in? Each district would receive $6,599, multiplied by the number of students going to school in that district. Aid to special education programs would continue unchanged. This would replace the current system imposed 40 years ago by the New Jersey Supreme Court in which 59 percent of the state aid goes to 23 percent of the student population.
Christie was of course immediately accused by Democrats and New Jersey media of succumbing to racism, since evening out the aid system would reduce budgets in the poorest districts. But the governor noted that the greatest beneficiary of the current system, Asbury Park, has a high school graduation rate hovering around 66 percent, based on a state subsidy of $33,699 per student. He also noted that inner cities like Newark have charter schools achieving superior performance outcomes with per pupil costs about half that of the conventional public schools. Given this track record, it would seem likely that inner-city students and parents will be the biggest winners if the reform becomes law.
Democrats represent many of the suburban school districts that would be able to enjoy the largest cuts in property taxes, a category in which New Jersey leads the nation. Christie challenged Bergen County State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, his fiercest legislative critic, to explain to her constituents in Fair Lawn and Teaneck why homeowners should not receive property tax cuts of (respectively) $2,200 and $1,600 a year. Estimates are that 75 percent of New Jersey municipalities under Christie’s proposal would see lower residential property taxes.
More important than New Jersey’s school and tax debate in the coming 17 months is what this deeply radical proposal says about Donald Trump’s closest political adviser, who was recently named director of the presidential transition. Among conservatives and Republicans, it seems to me, the biggest argument is not so much ideological as diagnostic: Given what President Obama and the left have achieved over the last seven years, can the country afford four years of Republican small ball, or is it time to take some big risks on behalf of some very big changes? It’s a hopeful sign that the elected official closest to Donald Trump seems to be on the revolutionary side of that divide.
Jeff Bell is Policy Director of the American Principles Project and was the Republican nominee for the U. S. Senate in New Jersey in 2014.